Helping learners understand different accents


This post accompanies the workshop Laura gave on 7 November 2015 at the English UK conference in London. You can view the presentation slides here. (You may also have seen or heard about this workshop earlier this year, at the IATEFL conference in Manchester; and you can also watch a recording here of the webinar Laura gave for Cambridge English Teacher, explaining how to conduct this 5-step listening lesson.)

Why help learners understand different accents – and why L2 accents in particular?

English is used by millions of people around the world. They do not all sound the same, and very few sound like the recordings featured in popular published ELT materials. To be successful communicators internationally, students need not only to make themselves understood, but to be prepared to listen and understand the truly vast variety of voices they’ll encounter in the world outside the classroom.

How can I develop these skills in class?

In the aforementioned workshop, we looked at a 5-step lesson structure which can be adapted using any video* which you’ve selected as suitable for your students (in terms of level, subject matter, relevance to students’ interests, etc.).

Here’s an example of Javier Bardem, a Spanish-accented speaker of English, which we used in today’s workshop (from 18 seconds in – where the interviewer asks “Do you think you’ll ever explore your acting abilities to their furthest limits?” – to 1 min 20 secs, where he concludes “…and I’m lucky enough to make a living out of that.”). In the lesson structure outlined below, I’ve included suggestions of which features of pronunciation you could look at which occur in part of this clip.

*You could use audio, but video is ideal for working on pronunciation because part of listening comprehension is actually visual – seeing the speaker’s mouth and face gives extra information to your brain which helps it make sense of the stream of sound!

1. Listening

  • It’s important to establish context for, and interest in, the clip.
  • It’s important that students have a good idea of the speaker’s main message before focusing on specific features of his/her pronunciation.
  • First, get students to listen for a general understanding, then for more detailed understanding. You can create your own questions for this.

2. Noticing

  • Once context and interest have been established, give students a selection of words from the clip which show one particular feature of the speaker’s L1-influenced accent of English. In this Javier Bardem example, I suggest:
    • “when I was 18 years old”
    • “for several reasons”
    • “sometimes you lose it”
  • These phrases all contain words with the /z/ phoneme (“reasons” contains it twice!), which Spanish speakers often substitute /s/ for (because /z/ is not a phoneme of Spanish). Do not tell the students this yet!
  • Students listen to the clip again and tick (or grab – if you prefer to a kinaesthetic version of the activity, you can put the words on slips of paper) each word/phrase as they hear it.

3. Analysis

  • Once the students have ‘found’ them in the clip, ask the students how they themselves would pronounce these words/phrases.
  • Play the appropriate moments of the clip as many times as necessary for students to contrast this speaker’s pronunciation with their own. Make sure they’re just contrasting – not passing judgment or correcting. Here are the relevant time markers in this clip of Javier Bardem:
    • “when I was 18 years old” (0:29)
    • “for several reasons” (0:36)
    • “sometimes you lose it” (0:43)
  • Prompt them to identify patterns. (In this case,  you’re hoping they’ll notice that he always replaces /z/ with /s/.)

4. Prediction

  • Prepare more examples of words that follow these patterns – ideally, these should be examples which come from the clip but which you haven’t already used. In our Javier Bardem example, I suggest:
    • “what it was” (0:51)
    • “easy choice” (0:57)
  • Students predict how this speaker would pronounce these words. Remember to ask them (without confirming if they’re right yet) what they’ve predicted. This will help you actually observe the development of their listening skills!
  • Play the clip again so they can check their predictions.

5. Reflection & discussion

Get students to reflect on both the purpose and process of this activity, i.e.:

  • Why is it so important to understand many different accents of English? And why not just focus on native-speaker accents? (Answer: see the beginning of this blog post!)
  • Is it easy to develop this aspect of the skill of listening? (No, but it’s not impossible, either. The important thing is that exposure alone isn’t enough to develop your ability to understand others’ pronunciation. Sometimes you need to examine more closely what they’re doing. We do this naturally in our first language, but it takes some conscious effort at first when learning a second language.)
  • How can students increase their exposure to a range of accents? (If you’re in a multilingual classroom, this is easy – there will be a range of L2-accented speakers sitting right beside you. If you’re in an English-speaking country and want to understand those speakers, try to engage in conversation with people outside class, such as in shops or in your host family. If you don’t have easy access to such human resources, or aren’t confident enough to do these things yet, then look online for clips like the YouTube one in this blogpost.)

Some very important things to remember

Development of these skills takes time. Contrary to what many students and teachers perhaps wish, learning is not fast or easy! Don’t expect miracles – but don’t give up too quickly, either. It’s worth developing your ability to understand others’ pronunciation, as intelligibility is a two-way street. Speakers need to make themselves understood, and listeners also need to make an effort to understand.

There are lots of videos out there but they’re not all appropriate. Use your common sense and discretion when selecting video clips to show your students. Think about possible cultural taboos or other areas of potential sensitivity, try to find clips that reflect students’ interests, and – above all – try to find clips of speakers who represent the people your students will really need to understand. If, for example, a student works in an international company where all his/her colleagues are Italian and French, prioritise understanding of Italian-accented and French-accented speakers of English!

Proficient L2 celebrities make good role models. Not only is it helpful that such people often give interviews which end up online and can be used as authentic material in class, but these people are also excellent examples of L2 speakers of English whose pronunciation has clearly not held them back in life! Many students will aspire to native-like pronunciation, and some will have good justification for this – but other students will find this unnecessary and potentially demotivating. For these students, seeing a real-life example of somebody who they admire and who has also gone through a similar learning process to them (from the same L1 background), this is a much more realistic and appropriate model to aspire to than an anonymous native-accented speaker on a coursebook CD.

Analyse; don’t mock. Studying accents is a sensitive business. Although some generalisations are possible, beware the risk of stereotyping and never ridicule others’ speech: it’s not good scholarship. There are countless people out there, celebrity and otherwise, who are very proficient L2 users of English with successful lives and careers. For the speakers listed below, for example, features of their L1 pronunciation do not appear to hinder their international intelligibility – an encouraging message for your students!

Where can I find more examples of L2 accents?

The internet is jam-packed with people speaking English. YouTube is a helpful resource, though it can take time to find appropriate clips. In addition to the clip of Javier Bardem which we watched in this workshop, here are some more suitable examples we’ve found, with accompanying notes on characteristic L1 pronunciation features which you could look at in steps 3 and 4 of the lesson structure above:

1. Chinese: Shen Wei (choreographer)

Note: the relevant part of the clip starts at 1 minute, 31 seconds.

Dropping consonants at the end of syllables:

  • “my childhood
  • “at that time
  • “no art schools”
  • “a lot of Western concepts, ideas into China”
  • “after that, once we learned all the traditional…”

2. Japanese: Takashi Murakami (artist)

/l/ and /r/ pronounced similarly:

  • “original story”
  • really childish”

/b/ and /v/ pronounced similarly:

  • “have to move

/f/ pronounced like /h/:

  • “have to move”
  • finally a big monster is coming”

3. French: Jean Dujardin (actor)

Note: the relevant part of the clip starts after 13 seconds.

Dropping /h/ at the beginning of words:

  • he is”
  • his”

Dropping /s/ at the end of words:

  • “sometimes he’s a joker”
  • “a team of art specialists

Finally, an appeal…

It can be very time-consuming to find clips and create accompanying questions/materials like those above, though of course this hard work is worthwhile! If you use this 5-step lesson plan with your own clips, please do share those examples with other teachers. If you’d like to share them with a wider audience outside your own staffroom, we’d be happy to host a guest blog post here – just get in touch. We’d especially like to find more examples of female and older/younger speakers than those in the examples given here.


22 thoughts on “Helping learners understand different accents

  1. Thanks so much for your work, Laura. I love the interview with Shen Wei – great example, and really interesting, too! Will use with my class.
    Let me share one I use for Nigerian English: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently discusses the issue of accent and identity in her work Americanah, so we’ll watch one of her interviews this year in our first session: “If Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barack Obama would not have won” (Also wonderful: her full-length TED talk on how we should all be feminists)
    I’m still looking for a short, but excellent interview with someone from Vietnam. Any tips?? Thanks again 🙂 Anne

    • Hi Anne – thanks for sharing! We’ll put that in our bank for future blog posts…

      Re: a Vietnamese speaker, I don’t know an example off the top of my head but perhaps the wider ELT community could help. Have you tried Twitter/Facebook? If you find one, please let us know! (And of course, we’ll also share anything we can find.)


      • hi you could check out a series called Rebel Architects Al Jazeera documentary series which featured a Vietnamese architect and there was also a Nigerian Architect as well as a few others Spanish. can’t remember all the different nationalities – amazing people amazing stories,

  2. Hi Laura, Your session on L2 accents yesterday gave me ideas and inspiration to take into my lessons and use as soon as possible. I really enjoyed the workshop – not only was it interesting but doing the tasks ourselves made it even more memorable. Thankyou!

    • Hi Carlota, thanks very much! I’m glad you found it interesting and useful. Do let me know if you try out these things in your own lessons – I’d love to hear your experience.

  3. Hi Laura, love this and will definitely be incorporating some of it into my pron classes. So much of our work here in Glasgow is confidence building in students who are, primarily, struggling with local accent, and then on top of that with the international accents of lecturers, tutors, and other students here in the university. It can be easy for students to become demoralised, and feel that they are in the wrong city (with regards to the local and International English they encounter here). We often have to spend a great deal of time reminding students that diverse accents exist across the UK and across the world and they could just as easily find accent challenges in Liverpool or London. Much more of our time should be spent preparing students for this, and training them so they understand an unusual accent (or anything not RP!) is not necessarily a bad or difficult accent, and that in today’s world it is normal. We have had issues in the past with listening exams recorded by Standard Scottish English teachers and Non Native teachers who speak excellent, perfectly clear and comprehensible English, but as soon as students hear a trace of an accent they are not accustomed to they complain it is too hard to understand. Very very frustrating!

    • Hi Gemma, thanks for your comment. I’m really glad you find this guidance useful.

      What you say about confidence building is absolutely crucial – what many students (and people in general, especially those without a specialist linguistic background) fail to realise is that the ability to understand someone is largely an issue of the listener’s own familiarity with their speech, or style of speech, not an inherent feature of the speech itself. I mean, just consider all the toddlers whose babbling is comprehensible only to their parents! Or the infamously ‘incomprehensible’ Glaswegian accent, which funnily never seems to be problematic to fellow Glaswegians…

      And of course, outside the realms of anecdote and intuition, there’s plenty of sound empirical evidence that comprehensibility of speech is only partly about the speaker – the listener also needs to make an effort. And it’s not impossible to train our students in such skills in the classroom (hence this blogpost!).

      I do hope you’ll come back and share your experience of trying these techniques in class. And if you want to participate in a workshop on this topic yourself, there’s one coming up next week… it’s free and open to all; you just need to register for a Cambridge English Teacher account (also free). Here’s a link:

      Thanks again for your comments & good luck with your pron teaching!


  4. I incorporate elements of what you mention in this article with my clients working on their English pronunciation. I think it’s helpful for learners to hear how actors with heavy accents are still very understandable because of their attention to vowel length, speech rate and final consonant sounds. I wrote a blog post with clips of Sofia Vergara, Salma Hayek, and Chow Yun-Fat demonstrating these points. Perhaps others could use these videos for your 5 step lesson plan:

    • Hi Karen

      Thanks very much for sharing these videos. It’s especially useful to have more examples of women!

      Our approach is a bit different to the one taken on your blog – we focus particularly on listeners whose first language is not English, rather than native-speaker listeners, as these two groups may have somewhat different expectations – but one tip I particularly liked from your blogpost, and which I think is good advice no matter who is speaking or listening, is to maintain a relaxed speech rate. I’ve had many students who somehow came to believe that the best way to sound fluent in any language is to speak it at light-speed! I don’t know where they get this idea from, but learning to relax when speaking (fairly easy) and to pause in appropriate places (a bit harder) has always seemed to help my students.

      Thanks again for your contribution to this fascinating aspect of language teaching!


  5. Hi Laura, I’ve just started teaching some university staff who deal with students from all around the world and in our first class last week they talked about the difficulties that come with this. I therefore though this lesson would be perfect when it appeared in my inbox! I used it today and it went really well, think it acted as a good way to introduce ways to practice understanding different accents and will give students extra motivation to watch the ted talks I set for hw! I think it was also interesting for them to identify the specific patterns and reasons for these.

    Thanks very much for the plan, if I make any of my own videos later in the course I’ll be sure to share them with you.


    • Hi Gemma
      Glad to hear your classes in Switzerland have got off to such a good start! And very pleased that this lesson plan helped you (and even more importantly, helped them!). Please do let us know if you do any similar lessons or make your own videos.
      All the best,

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  8. Laura and blog commenters, thank you for sharing great insights on the issue of accented pronunciation. I teach ESP and pronunciation is the main feature of my training.

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